How MRI Is Used to Detect Alzheimer's Disease

One way to test for Alzheimer's disease is to assess the brain's functioning. There are several frequently used cognitive screenings that can be used to evaluate someone's memory, executive functioning, communication skills, and general cognitive functioning. These tests are commonly done in your healthcare provider's office; widely used is Mini Mental Status Exam (MMSE) or Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA). These can be very helpful in identifying if a problem exists, or if there's just a normal lapse in memory.

There are, however, several different types of dementia, as well as other conditions that can cause symptoms of dementia but are reversible. There are ways you can tell.

Doctors examining MRI results
Ron Levine Collection / Stone / Getty Images

Magnetic Resonance Imaging

One tool that is being used more frequently is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). We don't have an exact test yet that definitively diagnoses Alzheimer's disease, but an MRI can help in a couple of different ways. It can be used to eliminate other causes for memory loss such as normal pressure hydrocephalus, a brain tumor or a stroke. Sometimes, an MRI can also find a reversible cause for cognitive decline that, with the proper treatment, can be reversed and cognitive functioning restored.

Measure Volume in the Brain

An MRI can provide the ability to view the brain with 3D imaging. It can measure the size and amount of cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain that typically shows atrophy (shrinkage) during the course of Alzheimer's disease. The hippocampus is responsible for accessing memory which is often one of the first functions to noticeably decline in Alzheimer's.

An MRI of someone with Alzheimer's disease may also show parietal atrophy. The parietal lobe of the brain is located in the upper back portion of the brain and is responsible for several different functions including visual perception, ordering and calculation, and the sense of our body's location.

Ongoing Research

The use of brain imaging, including an MRI, to detect Alzheimer's disease is a focus of several research projects underway. The Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI), in fact, has been collecting imaging and research results for several years to determine a non-invasive way to detect Alzheimer's earlier in the disease process.

Next Steps

If you're concerned that you or someone you love may have Alzheimer's disease, make an appointment with your healthcare provider to evaluate this possibility. Although it may be a scary call to make, there are many benefits to the early detection of cognitive problems.

Along with cognitive tests and possibly an MRI, the healthcare provider will likely conduct additional testing to determine the extent and cause of any memory problems or other cognitive concerns. An accurate diagnosis can help direct the path of treatment which can include both medication and complementary approaches.

5 Sources
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Additional Reading

By Esther Heerema, MSW
Esther Heerema, MSW, shares practical tips gained from working with hundreds of people whose lives are touched by Alzheimer's disease and other kinds of dementia.